Music Business

Blockchain Tech And What The Music Business Could Learn From The Internet Of Things

1Here George Howard reflects on his perception of the sameness of music business discussions/panels as they relate to streaming, and the challenge of getting people to understand blockchain technology and how its implementation could positively impact the music business as a whole.


Guest Post by George Howard 

As I drove from the North Shore of Boston down to Cambridge to speak at the fantastic MIT Hacking Arts event, I worried about trying to clearly articulate what I knew I was going to be asked about: What’s the future of the music business?

Generally, I avoid music “business” panels, because they’re typically echo chambers with the same people espousing basic variants on the same themes:


•Streaming services don’t pay enough to artists

•At least streaming services are getting some people to pay for music

•Over time as streaming services scale there will be more money for artists

•There is now more music being consumed than ever before

•Artists need to be more entrepreneurial

•Super fans are important

•Music is a loss-leader for other revenue drivers

•Spotify is bad

•Spotify is good



I genuinely feel bad/guilty when I look out from a panel into a crowd of artists who have paid money/taken time away from something else to attend events, and are being fed “information” such as the above.

I therefore, try very hard NOT to just spout the same tired bromides that everyone has already heard, and also to call out those people who have the misfortune of being on a panel with me when they do. This perhaps explains why I don’t get invited to speak on too many panels (though, I do my share – at this point, people at least know what they’re going to get if they do invite me).

In any case, given that this panel was hosted by MIT, and that many of my students were involved in the event, I gladly signed on, and, knowing that the above list of “topics” would inevitably be discussed (because the above list of topics arealways the list of topics discussed), determined that I would do my very best to not let the organizers or attendees down by contributing to the noise.

As anyone who has been reading my columns knows, my dominant focus with respect to the music industry has centered on blockchain tech (I am increasingly weaving in pieces on how music heals, and profiling entrepreneurs in this space).

I am genuinely excited about how blockchain tech (or a decentralized registry along with smart contracts, generally) could radically transform the music industry in a positive fashion.

The problem with this is that, as the brilliant D.A. Wallach said to me in a recent conversation, blockchain is an “interesting technical solution to a pretty complex problem…and it sort of tickles your brain because it’s hard to understand.”

I’m an entrepreneur and an academic, and so I LOVE complex problems that tickle my brain. My challenge – as both entrepreneur and academic – is to help people who have neither the direct interest or time to understand these complexities.

Certainly, I’ve not only spilled a lot of words trying to explain blockchain tech, but have also recruited some of the smartest and most creative people on the planet to help me do so. Beyond, the above-mentioned, Mr. Wallach, the list (to date) includes:

Zoe Keating

Imogen Heap

Ryan Leslie

Andy Weissman

Bill Tai

Jesse Von Doom

The founders of Colu

Dominantly because of the contributions of those listed above, I feel I’ve had some success in bringing a greater level of awareness of blockchain tech to the artistic community, but there’s still a LONG way to go.

It struck me, as I pulled into the MIT campus, that what we really need is some form of comparison or heuristic; something that people already understand that can help tame the inherent complexities and strangeness of blockchain tech.

Fundamental to how blockchain tech can add value to the music industry is the idea that an artist can define how and at what cost (if any) their works can be utilized.

Once quantified, those who desire to use/buy/stream musical works can search for the works they desire, and which are offered with terms/rules (price, types of usage, etc) that fit their needs/budget.

Smart contracts embedded in the works themselves will allow for those who are offering their works and those who desire to use the works to connect without any intermediaries, and crypto currencies will allow for micro transactions to occur without the prohibitive transactions costs related to fiat currency.

As such, vast numbers of relationships between those making music and those consuming/utilizing music will emerge, and – because of the distributed nature of the blockchain – there will be no need for intermediaries such as ASCAP, BMI, Harry Fox , SoundExchange, et al.

Where people seem to get bogged down with this approach is with idea that these types of matches – between those who are offering music, and those who want to utilize music – can efficiently take place without some type of centralized service.

Sara Torti, senior product manager of apps for Nest. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

To see how this is not only possible, but actually occurring, it is helpful to look to the Internet of Things (IoT).

While – as with so much tech – the promise of the IoT has not yet lived up to the reality (uhm, Apple AAPL +0.00%, will you ever release HomeKit in any meaningful way?), we increasingly live in a world of connected devices that “talk” and connect with each other at great scale and with little-to-no human (or institutional) intervention.

When I returned home from the panel, for instance, an app on my phone, using geo-fencing, notified my Nest thermostat to turn up the AC. When I walked in, I said, “Alexa, turn on the lights,” and my Amazon Echo device “talked” to my Hue lightbulbs, which illuminated my living room. I then said, “Alexa, play Paul Desmond,” and it “talked” to Pandora , and started streaming my Paul Desmond station.

In a sense, I was sending out requests – not only for music, but for lighting and temperature – and machines translated these requests into the requisite languages necessary for those machines set up to service these requests could understand.

This is really what the IoT is: requests from users being translated into a language that the machines providing the services can understand in order to fulfill the requests.

Smart contracts between those creating music and those using music would work in a similar way.

(Of course, this is analogous to/the same thing as API calls, but I’ve found that using APIs as an example to explain smart contracts across the blockchain not to be effective.)

Certainly, this is not a perfect analogy, but it hopefully provide a basis of comparison between something people seem to understand (Internet of Things), and something people seem to be struggling to grasp (blockchain tech/smart contracts, and its applicability to the music industry).

Those listening to my panel – at least those who I hadn’t offended with my surliness – seemed to think so.

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